Arts: A silvermine brings misery

Many film-makers have ventured into the heart of Joseph Conrad's dense narratives. But most come back empty-handed. As adaptations of `Nostromo' and `The Secret Agent' loom large, Steven Poole explains why Jo can never be the new Jane

The silver seam of Jane Austen is all but exhausted for the worthy miners in film and television. Casting her lifeless husk aside, they wonder, squinting, who will now satisfy the insatiable public appetite for period drama. You would not bet on the new candidate being a gloomy seafaring Pole, who wrote in his third language, English, and who more or less invented the rug-pulling prismatism of the modern novel. But Joseph Conrad, who died in 1924, is our man.

Conrad's work divides roughly into two halves. Between 1899 and 1911 was his "great" period, encompassing Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. After completing the last, Conrad, beset by money problems, suffered a nervous breakdown. Then came Chance (1914), a soi-disant "romance", which despite its extraordinarily knotty architecture became a massive commercial success. Although The Shadow- Line (1917) is indispensable, most of Conrad's other work after Chance seemed a weary recapitulation of old themes. Conrad settled comfortably into his role as elder statesman of literature (although he refused a knighthood). Perhaps because this later work is less shockingly new, it has generally been the easier option for Hollywood movie screenwriters than the "great" work. Nearly 90 films have been made of Conrad's tales, but only a handful are worth watching.

Dr Alan Simmons, editor of The Conradian magazine and contributor to a new volume, Conrad on Film, to be published by Cambridge University Press at the end of the year, is happy to discuss the more interesting celluloid Conrads. One of the problems facing a screenwriter, Simmons believes, is that: "If you try to remain rigidly faithful, you sometimes miss the spirit. Conrad's full of suggestion." Ridley Scott's first feature, The Duellists, adapted from Conrad's short story "A Point of Honour", suffered from this literalness: full of lovingly researched pictorial detail, it yet leaves the viewer cold. (Scott, a man of literary taste, also paid homage to Conrad in the far superior Alien, where the spaceship is named Nostromo.) Alfred Hitchcock's freer version of The Secret Agent, entitled Sabotage, is tight and racy, although Hitch later thought he had broken the rules of suspense by letting the bomb go off. Terence Young's The Rover, and An Outcast of the Islands starring Trevor Howard, are both "remarkably faithful", says Simmons; there is also David Lean's ploddingly beautiful Lord Jim, with Peter O'Toole in a reprise of his Lawrence of Arabia turn.

Why are most such valiant efforts somehow anaemic, flat? The answer may be this. Conrad famously expends much of his prose on telling the reader what things are not: Heart of Darkness, for instance, is studded with negative definitions like "implacable", "impenetrable", "invisible" and so forth. Cinema, on the other hand, embodies an energetic positivism of the image: you can only show what things are. Moreover, a cinematic image is almost inevitably encrusted with superabundant detail, which will dilute the force of those key moments where Conrad deliberately constructs a symbolic picture for the reader. The tension between these two modes of representation, the ironic and the mimetic, is obvious, and herein lies the danger for literal-minded film-makers, a danger analogous to that evoked by slavishly "literal" translations of foreign prose or poetry.

Another problem is that Conrad's genius owes so much to an alchemic fusion of melodrama and metaphysics: tempestuous, rhetorical arguments about ideas of fidelity, truth and death. Now, cinema is these days less equipped or willing than ever to deal in metaphysics (although it would be amusing to watch Quentin Tarantino grapple with Sartre's L'Etre et le Neant), and if you ditch Conrad's metaphysics, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

One of the best Conrad-inspired films, Apocalypse Now, gets round this problem with elan. Updating the action of Heart of Darkness to Vietnam, with helicopter gunships and machine guns, Coppola (with co-writer John Milius) takes Conrad's central metaphysical notion of work as an essential "illusion" that preserves man's sanity by distracting him from the "abyss" of reality, and replaces it with what replaced metaphysics in the late 1960s: rock music and LSD.

The contrast is salient with Nicholas Roeg's dully "straight" cable-TV version of Heart of Darkness. It stars an excellent Tim Roth as the narrator and non-hero, Marlow, and an infuriatingly fey John Malkovich as Kurtz (playing a character renowned for his powerfully charismatic voice, Malkovich settles on a lisping, sing-song delivery, which is even less appropriate than Marlon Brando's gurgling whisper in Apocalypse Now). The first shots are the best: slow, tracking close-ups over the hieroglyphically wrinkled grey hide of an elephant. With this opening sequence at least, Roeg manages to suggest Marlow's youthful fascination with maps of Africa and the fateful link with the ivory trade, as well as the ancient atavism of the jungle. But for the sort of technical cinematic innovation that could conceivably have complemented Conrad's brilliance, the greatest adaptation never made is undoubtedly Orson Welles's Heart of Darkness. It was to have been his first picture with RKO, and Welles, that master of ventriloquy, planned to shoot it entirely from Marlow's point of view. Unfortunately, the extreme expense involved in long takes with the "subjective camera", and the number of extras required, saw the project aborted, and the world had to make do with Citizen Kane.

Now Conrad's greatest work, Nostromo (1904), is coming to the small screen, thanks to the BBC (who contributed half the pounds 9m cost) and an international conglomerate headed by Fernando Ghia, co-producer of The Mission. This political epic, centring on a silver mine in a fictional South American dictatorship beset by revolution, has been squeezed into four beautifully shot, increasingly gripping 90-minute episodes by the heroic efforts of screenwriter John Hale. Happily this lush Nostromo's successes are more numerous than its faults (the greatest of which is the atrocious performance of Ruth Gabriel as Antonia). Colin Firth (buttoned-up English mine-owner), Serena Scott Thomas (radiant, neglected wife) and Albert Finney (fruitily crumpled Irish doctor) are all excellent. The Italian actor Claudio Amendola in the title role disappoints at first, but grows ever more sweatily convincing.

Especially noteworthy is Ennio Morricone's music. Conrad once professed an artistic debt to the music of Richard Wagner. Fittingly, therefore, Morricone harks back to his spaghetti western scores by building his soundtrack around a repeated three-note Wagnerian leitmotif for Nostromo himself, played on an Andean wooden flute and echoing the name "Nostromo" in its rhythm. It is a perfect transference to the screen of Conrad's verbal technique - when Nostromo is mentioned in the novel, it is almost always with such repetitive epithets as "the incorruptible" or "the magnificent".

Hale's script does not exactly offer any new technical solutions. He has rewired Conrad's time-bending patchwork of wide-angle history and microscopic anthropology into a straightforward narrative. This is the big concession. It is impossible to imagine a television audience coping with Conrad's baffling shifts of perspective, yet the novel's stark, ironising force owed everything to that form. The point is that Conrad is working to question his characters' complacent, myopic view of history as linear progress. Yet the television version cannot help but endorse this linearity. With this inevitable compromise in mind, it is heartening to see how well Hale manages to dramatise the story's politics, without resorting to that screenwriter's index of desperation, the voiceover. This is challenging and courageous television, and should not be judged a failure if ratings are disappointing, for some viewers just will not have the patience.

Conrad, you see, is emphatically not the new Jane. The adaptor and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, whose film of The Secret Agent comes out in June, explains laconically: "He offers no consolation. He's just too - corrugated." But Nostromo has a persuasive claim to be considered the greatest novel of this century (pace the Waterstone's list). And while the coming spate of Conrad films (including Mark Peploe's Victory and Beeban Kidron's Amy Foster) will provoke a secret jealousy in those who cherish this under- read writer and want to keep him to themselves, there is no doubting their audacity. Conrad compared writing fiction to "rescue work carried out in darkness". It is hard to shake the feeling that, when the film people come along and flick on the searchlights, something scuttles away to brood alone in the shadows.

`Nostromo' starts today 9.30pm BBC2

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